Sunday, July 15, 2007

Buddhism or Bust

That's the title of a book I just read. It's the story of a middle-aged journalist whose life is a bit of a mess taking an assignment to trace the origins and history of Buddhism across Europe, Asia and the Americas. The hook is that in finding the story of the Buddha, the journalist (Perry Garfinkel) finds himself.

I'm trying to learn more about Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism so that I can have some minor clue when Bambina asks me if she was born Jewish. Maybe she won't ask in quite those words, but I imagine that as she gets older she'll want to know more about the potential faith traditions in her history, and I don't want to it to seem like I didn't care enough about it to find out.

But shouldn’t I be more concerned with enhancing her Jewish identity? Honestly, no. She was a person with a history (albeit mostly unknown) before I came along, and she has a right to that history no matter what I hope her religious identity and beliefs will be. After all, when I tell Bambina that our becoming a family meant that our ancestors became hers, and hers became ours, I’d be a complete liar if I didn’t actually make an effort to know something about those ancestors, wouldn’t I?

Besides, I'm a firm believer that exposing your kids to other religions does not necessarily make them forsake the one in which they were raised. I tend to think that, if anything, it gives them a stronger grasp on WHY they believe what they do, as well as a stronger commitment to that belief on an intellectual as well as spiritual level. That's why I'm always stunned at fundamentalists (of any religion) who don't want their kids mixing with "nonbelievers." If your religion is the right one, and you "walk by faith not by sight," then why the lack of faith that your belief system will trump all other influences? However, the honest truth from my gut is that if Bambina chose to follow Buddhism rather than Judaism, I’d support her 100%. You can’t—and never should—mandate religious belief to others, even your kids. Because any religious belief that has to be compelled instantaneously loses its meaning—and what kind of parent would that make me?

Anyhoo, it has been really interesting learning more about Buddhism, in its multiple iterations, specifically Engaged Buddhism. What appeals to me most (maybe because I'm where I am in my life cycle these days) is the belief that things are what they are and that you need to let go of the disappointment, the hurt, the fear, the expectations in order to be truly enlightened (a state I'd label as "content") and in order to do the most good for others. It says that simply having beliefs is not sufficient; that one’s beliefs should be put into action to help others. I obviously am doing Buddhism no justice in my amateur explanation, but suffice to say that there is an element of it that appeals to me and that I’m so glad I’m learning more about.

Read the book if you get the chance. And in the meantime, since my explanation is so amateur, consider the following quote that, to me, best summarizes Buddhism for the layperson. It is, ironically, not from a Buddhist:

Life is full of misery, loneliness, suffering--and it's all over much too soon.
Woody Allen

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